EU to toughen sanctions against employers of undocumented workers

04.02.09 @ 09:18

  1. By Elitsa Vucheva

BRUSSELS - MEPs are set to give a final backing on Wednesday (4 February) to EU-wide rules agreed with member states and the European Commission that would considerably toughen sanctions against employers of undocumented workers across the bloc.

  • The directive is also aiming to improve non-EU workers' rights. (Photo: EUobserver.com)

Under the new legislation, employers hiring undeclared workers would face sanctions, including fines and paying back wages to their workers amounting to "at least the wage provided for by the applicable laws on minimum wages, collective agreements or practices in the relevant occupational branches."

Such employers could also be excluded from participation in public contracts, as well as from public benefits, aid and subsidies – including EU funding managed by member states – for up to five years.

In some cases – such as repeated or conscious hiring of undocumented migrants, or hiring of children or victims of human trafficking – the employers would be punished under criminal law "by effective, proportionate and dissuasive criminal penalties" that would be up to the member states to define.

Those employers who subject migrant workers to "particularly exploitative working conditions" would also be punishable under criminal law.

"Migrants are often subjected to terrible exploitation, sometimes even treated as slaves," said Italian Socialist MEP Claudio Fava, who drafted the report on the legislation for the parliament, during a debate in Strasbourg on Tuesday.

"We need instruments to promote legal migration and not simply keep producing punitive legislation against illegal migration," he added, calling the new directive "a step forward."

The proposal was also backed by conservative and liberal MEPs, while EU justice commissioner Jacques Barrot - also present at the debate - called it "a significant step in combating illegal immigration by targeting the employers while trying to protect migrants, who are often the victims."

Currently, between 4.5 million and 8 million non-EU citizens are estimated to be working across the 27-member bloc, mostly in sectors such as construction, agriculture, cleaning and hotel trade.

Still some reservations

However, some MEPs voiced concern about the new legislation.

In its current form, it does not guarantee that workers would actually get paid, said British Green MEP Jean Lambert.

"We have no guarantee that member states will ensure that people are paid. We have an assurance that mechanisms will be in place so that claims can be made but not that money will be paid over," she said.

For her part, Irish MEP Mary Lou McDonald, of Sinn Fein, expressed concerns that the directive still targets migrant workers more than the employers.

"I regret very much that the legal base for this proposal is the fight against illegal immigration. The real fight is against rogue exploitative employers, and what we need at this time is an agenda that is pro-worker, not anti-immigrant," she said.

Meanwhile, both European business and unions have also expressed reservations about the proposal.

The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) is concerned that such a regulation could result in driving "a lot of the illegal work further underground."

On the other hand, employers federation Business Europe "does not like some elements of the directive that shift the burden of public authorities on employers, such as the subsidiary liability or administrative tasks," said Marcus Schwenke, Business Europe's adviser on employment issues.

Mr Schwenke was referring to certain provisions in the directive, under which employers would have to check migrants' residence permits before hiring them. They could also be punished if a subcontractor uses an undocumented work force.

The new legislation - which member states are expected to implement by 2011, is part of a wider package that also includes the so-called EU blue card scheme, which aims to make it easier for skilled non-EU workers to enter the bloc's labour market.

The commission will also present three new proposals on regular migration this spring - notably covering seasonal workers and paid interns.

The final vote on this report has been postponed until later in February.